The Coen Brothers Get 'Serious'

By Cathleen Falsani 10-05-2009

091005-a-serous-manRecenly, I had a bad day. Epically bad.

I ran out of cash.

I lost my credit card.

I missed my flight.

And then, standing outside the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare, I dropped my cell phone, and as if in slow motion, watched in horror as it bounced and dropped over the barrier and onto the roof of the baggage claim area 10 feet below into an inch-deep layer of pigeon guano and dead cigarettes.

First I cried, and then I laughed as several chivalrous gentlemen from TSA, the Chicago Police Department and the city's Department of Engineering came to my rescue, eventually retrieving my (mercifully) still-working phone.

In those tense moments at the airport, beset by one minor calamity after another, I began to feel a bit like that poor fellow Job from Hebrew scripture. Job lost all his money, his wife, his children and his health, but he refused to curse God. He was a good man, a serious man.

My having-a-bad-day woes reminded me of Larry Gopnik, the protagonist of the spiritually powerful (and powerfully funny) new film "A Serious Man," that I saw last weekend at the Toronto Film Festival.

"A Serious Man" is the 14th film from the brotherly writing/directing/producing team of Joel and Ethan Coen. Set in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, in 1967, the dark comedy follows the trials and tribulations of Gopnik (played by newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor and all-around decent fellow whose life falls apart in the course of a few weeks before and after his son's bar mitzvah.

The Coens, the Oscar-winning duo who brought you "No Country for Old Men," "Fargo," "Raising Arizona" and "The Big Lebowski," among others, are natives of St. Louis Park and were reared in an academic Jewish community much like that of "A Serious Man." In fact, the Coens' parents were both university professors, and 1967 would have been the year Joel made his bar mitzvah.

Gopnik's suburban serenity begins to unravel when his wife announces she's leaving him for Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), a bloviating, faux-pious fellow professor. A litany of seemingly minor, but life-altering calumny leads Gopnik (who sees himself as a modern-day Job) to question the existence of God and the meaning of life -- and of suffering.

He turns to three rabbis for answers to his questions, all of which are, the filmmakers seem to be saying, essentially, unanswerable.

Since their directorial debut in 1984 with the neo-noir thriller "Blood Simple," the Coens have created some of the most enigmatic and enduring films of my generation. The average moviegoer may not realize the duo who gave us whimsical comedies such as "The Hudsucker Proxy," "The Ladykillers" and "Burn After Reading," are the same guys who made the bleakly post-modern "The Man Who Wasn't There" and the gangland period piece "Miller's Crossing."

The cinematic styles, periods, and themes of their films are so varied, some critics have wondered whether there is an overarching vision to the Coens' work. I would argue that it is the spirituality -- the theological notions, the existential questions, and the religious ideas -- of their films that, to paraphrase one of the oft-quoted lines from "Lebowski," really ties the room together.

Beginning with "Blood Simple," the story of a man who has serious doubts about his wife's fidelity and what happens when he attempts to uncover the "truth," the Coens have boldly engaged serious existential questions with darkly intelligent humor.

Each of the Coen brothers' films is marked by theological, philosophical, and mythological touchstones that enrich even the slapstickiest moments. Each film probes confounding ethical and spiritual quandaries, giving us a tour of nuanced moral universes that may be individual (in the case of "Barton Fink"), geographic (as in "Fargo"), or historic (such as the Depression Era of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?")

Biblical truths run rampant throughout the Coens' 25-year cinematic oeuvre. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. The love of money is the root of all evil. Love conquers all -- even death.

And that's just in "Fargo" alone.

The Coens have created moral universes in which some of life's essential questions are asked -- if not always answered. These queries run the gamut from the meaning of life and enlightenment, to the fundamental nature of grace, truth and love. There is seemingly no question the brothers are afraid to tackle, either with a wink and a smile or brutal honesty (and sometimes both).

There is a moral order to the worlds the Coens create. Whether it's a farcical crime caper or an American Gothic tale of betrayal, there always are consequences to the characters' actions, for better or for worse.

Bad guys are punished and the decent are rewarded for their innate goodness, though beware the viewer who assumes it will be easy to discern which is which.

Sins come to light; lies and deception are revealed. Occasionally, the hand of God intervenes to restore order from chaos.

"A Serious Man," which hits theaters nationwide Oct. 2, encapsulates all of the spiritual themes the Coens have examined in their past films and introduces audiences to one of the more intriguing (if little-known) theological notions from Judaism -- that of the Lamed Vavnik, the 36 righteous souls in every generation upon whom the fate of the rest of the world rests.

The film continues the Coens' work as secular theologians whose body of work one astute critic described as "the most sneakily moralistic in recent American cinema."

Cathleen Falsani is the author of the new book The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. She blogs at The Dude Abides.

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